Community connection and civic participation: reviewing the Final Report of Vancouver’s Engaged City Task Force
Earlier today, City Council heard a presentation on the Final Report of the Engaged City Taskforce.
The Task Force was set up in October 2012, with a mandate (as noted in the Final Report) to “provide recommendations on how to increase Vancouverites’ sense of belonging and inclusion, deepen their electoral engagement, and address frustration regarding access to municipal decision making.” The specific scope of inquiry noted at the time involved helping the City to make progress on:
- neighbour to neighbour engagement
- increased literacy of, and opportunities for engaging in, City processes and resource allocations
- enhancing how the city engages with citizens, and vice versa
- ensuring all citizen engagement and consultation processes are based in citizen-based democratic decision-making
The all-volunteer Task force produced an earlier set of “Quick Start” recommendations back the summer of last year. (The VPSN provided some commentary and suggestions which you can read here.) The Final Report has all sorts of interesting ideas and recommendations in it, and we encourage you to take a look at the document.
Before going any further, we want to say a note of thanks to the 22 volunteer members of the Task Force for their work on this initiative. This was no small undertaking, and we are grateful for their efforts to improve civic processes and their contributions to making the city a more dynamic, engaged place to live.
The task will now fall on City staff to respond to the various recommendations – many of which, Task Force members noted, are there to inspire discussion and action on making Vancouver a more engaged, friendly place. To that end, the VPSN has written to the City to offer some feedback on the recommendations, as well as to suggest so amendments and additions that we felt would strengthen the work of the Task Force.
We organized our letter into three areas: (A) Recommendations we supported (which we provided no additional commentary for); (B) Recommendations that we felt could and should be strengthened; and (C) some “missing pieces” that we felt should be included to help strengthen levels of engagement and civic participation.
Here’s the excerpt from our submission:
A. Task Force Recommendations We Support
The VPSN supports the following recommendations, as described in the Final Report.
- Action 1 – Incorporate the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation
- Action 2 – Develop specific strategies for engaging under-represented groups
- Action 3 – Establish Citizen Academies
- Action 4 – Promote 3-1-1, with a focus on non-English speaking communities
- Action 5 – Invest in public engagement resources
- Action 7 – Develop an evaluation criteria for online tools
- Action 13 – Community Reference Panels
- Action 14 – Positive Cues to voting
- Action 15 – Target voter registration
- Action 16 – Extending voting rights
- Action 18 – Campaign finance reform
- Action 19 – Civic Engagement scorecard
B. Task Force Recommendations to strengthen or amend
The VPSN supports the following recommendations, but would like to see them strengthened.
- Action 6 – Expand and improve the distribution of notification mail-outs. This recommendation currently focuses on distribution of unaddressed mail. We feel the emphasis on working with Canada Post to improve unaddressed mail may have some challenges. As a fall back, we would encourage the City to consider greater use of addressed mail, as well as other notification techniques (street posters, coreplast notice boards, etc. when announcing civic initiatives or planning/engineering projects). More notification by a variety of means should be the principle here.
- Action 9 – Create A Public Space Action Association – We are pleased that the Engaged City Taskforce has recognized the importance of public space to fostering a more engaged, connected city (something we’ve been championing for some time!). However, having spoken with a number of members of the Taskforce, we are concerned that this recommendation may not achieve the sorts of ends that it is intended to – and may, in fact, (given the regulatory role that the recommendation implies) – complicate matters by creating an additional ‘layer’ between community members and the City.We understand Taskforce members were primarily concerned with some of the barriers that exist to activating new neighbourhood public spaces (barriers such as liability concerns, regulatory constraints, etc.). To that end, we would encourage Task Force members and the City to amend this recommendation to consider focusing efforts on a number of specific items as a way to respond to these concerns:
- Encourage a review of bylaws and other regulatory constraints on creating new spaces or activating existing ones
- Improve funding for Viva Vancouver to enable them to provide additional support to community groups
- Consider expanding the Viva Vancouver project review process to include some community-member input (e.g. similar to the grants review process used by some organizations)
- Provide dedicated grant or seed-funding to small scale place-making activities (e.g. similar to the Neighbourhood Small Grants)
- Publicize a listing of ‘orphaned’ or under-utilized City-owned land that could be used for new spaces
There are other ideas that we could suggest here, and we would be pleased to work with the Task Force and City to further the goals of this recommendation.
- Action 9 – Support community and cultural spaces – This recommendation currently focuses mostly on arts and culture spaces (i.e. formal or informal cultural venues and gathering places). This is an important area of community connection and one that garnered much focus (via discussions around the Waldorf, Rumpus Room, Little Nest). We would encourage this recommendation be expanded to ensure similar focus and ‘support’ (however conceived) be directed to Community Centres and Neighbourhood Houses, and (e.g. cultural facilities such as the Aboriginal Friendship Centres, Russian Cultural Centre, etc).
- Action 10 – Support face-to-face engagement. The VPSN is a keen believer in the power of face-to-face dialogue – balanced with the use of new engagement technologies. Face-to-face events are helpful, but often, in the way they are currently realized via “open houses” have a participant demographic profile that does not reflect the broader community. Some effort to look at how face-to-face can be broadly inclusive, and tailored to the needs of different sub-groups, is key.
- Action 12 – Charter of Rights, Roles & Responsibilities. This is key, because often times it’s not the civic engagement process that causes concern – it’s what happens afterward. Where do the ideas and information that the community shares go to? How is it used? What commitment will the City make to giving input due consideration? How might resident input be weighed against other City considerations? A charter of rights, roles and responsibilities could help to clearly identify scope of engagement and participation, what reasonable expectations might be attached to it, what’s on (or not on) the table for discussion, etc. It could also provide residents with some greater certainty (and transparency) around the actual levers of influence attached to each engagement activity.
- Action 17 – Use the Election ballot to get feedback on voter satisfaction with the current voting system – we feel that this is an interesting idea, particularly given conversations around ranked ballot initiatives in Toronto and other cities. However, a recommendation of this support could also usefully reference alternative approaches (what are they? Should they be explored?) as well as a sense of what the outcome of the ballot could mean in terms of possible change.
- Action 10 + Quick start – Neighbourhood liaison/Localized Council support – as noted in our correspondence from June 11, 2013 (attached), we support this effort to expand the assignment of Councilors to local areas (currently tied to community plan and community vision neighbourhoods). However, we still wish to see more detail on how it will be operationalized. An annual or semi-annual town hall meeting could be one option.
- Recommended Action D/F – Using Food to Bring People Together/Conversation Tables - The VPSN completely supports this tandem recommendation. However, having previously implemented this sort of ‘long table’ idea with VIVA Vancouver (2012 Lunch Meet series), we note a number of legal (licensing, permitting, liability) and physical (storage, set-up) challenges to making these sorts of events happen. As such, the VPSN encourages the City to advocate the Parks Board to implement a series of permanent conversation tables in parks or open spaces, or to provide some programmatic support for areas – e.g. May & LorneBrownPark – where a version of this already exists. This project would be relatively affordable and could also provide an opportunity to work with local artist and community groups to personalize tables to the unique characteristics of each community. We feel that making this infastructure permanent would eliminate almost all barriers to community implementing community-building events.
- Community Action E – Community Bulletin Boards – We support this effort to help community members develop bulletin boards. We would further the City to expand this idea of information sharing by (a) expanding the distribution of poster cylinders, (b) amending the Street and Traffic Bylaw to formally allow community notices on utility poles (currently against the law), (c) investigating the use of non-compliant billboards for community/public art projects (providing an aesthetic escape versus product branding space).
C. Missing items
Given the breadth of the Task Force’s mandate, there is a lot of material included within the pages of the final report. The VPSN notes a few other items that we feel would be complimentary additions. We have broadly clustered the first of these “missing pieces” under the heading of Building Access to City Hall as a means to compliment that format of the final report.
Building Access to City Hall
- Fair and reasonable release times for Council documents and staff reports – The agenda for today’s meeting – essentially the first notice that Vancouverite’s received that the Engaged City Report was going to be discussed – was only published six days prior to the meeting. This is a fairly consistent in recent years, and is a cause for concern. Earlier publication of agendas, and the multitude of motions and reports that accompany them, would better enable the public to review materials, comment as needed, and – should they desire – take time away from work or school to attend the meeting.
- Meeting times that work for people and agendas that ‘stay in place’ – We are concerned that the scheduled time for many Council and Committee meetings makes it challenging for residents to participate without taking time off work or school (if that’s even a possibility). We are further concerned that late changes to agendas can make face-to-face participation in Council and Committee discussions even more difficult. Looking at different ways to attend to these challenges would be a good step-forward for improving engagement in civic process and decision-making.
- Alternative technologies to allow distribution of information; (b) opportunity to appear at Council (skype) – In some jurisdictions, notices and alerts are distributed via cell-phone (text) or email alert, and community members are able to sign up to receive various categories of message in this fashion. As a complement to the idea of maintaining quality face-to-face engagement (Action 10), the use of tools to ensure broader distribution can assist with the overall quality of outreach. Again, more notification by a variety of means.At the same time, we would also encourage the City to look at different ways and means through which members of the public could participate in Council meetings. Where face-to-face attendance is a challenge (work, school, etc.), perhaps there are ways (e.g. skype, facetime) where residents could speak to Council remotely. As this technology becomes more refined (stable, cleaner connections, etc.) some effort should be made to look at this.
- Endorsement of media access to the City - ensuring that the media have clear and unfettered access to civic information is key to the creation of an informed citizenry. We note that Council approved a review of the media and communications policy some months ago and suggest that such a review, when released, will compliment the efforts of the Engaged City Task Force.
Other Missing Items
Priority action to support volunteerism – The City has previously endorsed the idea of a “Vancouver Volunteer Corps” (VVC) unveiled in August 2012; however the mandate of this initiative is limited to “major events, emergencies, and disasters.” There is much more to be done in this regards, and a truly Engaged City will depend on community contributions that span a wide array of every day activities. In fact, one 2010 Canadian study has shown that “[P]eople who were involved in community activities in their childhood or adolescence have a greater tendency to become adults who are involved in more kinds of civic activities like formal and informal volunteering, political organizations, service clubs, community associations, and so on.”
Improving access to existing meeting spaces – Community groups are often challenged by the availability of, or costs associated with, existing meeting spaces. Community centre spaces often charge $20-$30/hr and VSB sites somewhat greater sums. VPL spaces, while usually free, can require onerous paper-work, or day-of sign-ups (with no advance booking). Some mechanisms to improve access to (and availability of) no or low-cost community meeting spaces would be welcomed.